Timon of Athens
By Dennis Abrams
It’s a story as old as money itself: the fable of the big-spending man who uses, then loses all of his wealth – and with it, his wits and everything he owns. But Shakespeare’s variation on the theme – clearly indebted to medieval morality plays – ranks as one of his most neglected works.
Timon also has bears an interesting relationship to Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus in its portrayal of an (anti)hero who risks it all for ultimate glory – in Faustus’s case by trading his soul for the knowledge of the divine, in Timon’s by losing his vast Athenian fortune via a lifestyle of sensationally hedonistic proportions. Other ways of viewing the play: a philosophical debate between epicurianism and cynicism; as a more domestic version of Lear. But whereas both Faustus and Lear are tragic masterpieces, Timon of Athens, with a tone veering between tragedy and satire, is less certain in tone, and certainly more puzzling to understand.
The great sixteenth century essayist and philosopher Montaigne, noting that “what we hate we take to heart,” chose Timon of Athens as the kind of man who becomes so possessed by hatred of the world that he flees it. Timon’s dilemma – in Shakespeare play he is driven to madness by his own mad generosity and the stinginess of his friends – has a tragic ring to it, but at the same time, there is something savagely comic about his story. Forced into poverty, Timon digs for roots, but, to his rage, unearths gold coins; leaving the city he becomes a hermit who has to deal with an unending stream of greedy visitors. In fact, Montaigne mentions Timon while discussing another famous philosophical paradox: whether one should weep over mankind’s tragic situation, or, simply laugh at the utter futility of it all.
Timon seems to enter the same wild territory as King Lear, a play to which is often compared. Both have heroes who descend into insanity in response to the unkindness of others, yet who are themselves both tragically culpable; both, too, expose the painful fact that there is nothing noble about madness. Coriolanus, also with its own hero unable to adjust to his place in society also resembles Timon, but perhaps it’s closest Shakespearean cousin is the playwright’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, which also counterpoints comic and tragic scenes to such unsettling effect that even now audiences can struggle to take it all in. Where Titus’s sufferings are often so unbearably intense that he can only burst out laughing, exclaiming that “I have not another tear to shed,” Timon’s darker misanthropy expresses itself in brilliantly scabrous insults against anyone – or anything – who has the misfortune to get in his way. You’ll see, I think as we’re reading, that it’s difficult to know whether to laugh, cry, or rant with him.
And, like Titus, Timon’s status as genuine Shakespeare has frequently been brought into question. Dr. Johnson, noting “perplexed, obscure, and probably corrupt” stretches of text, was among the first to ask whether it was in fact unfinished, though he approved of its moral value (a quality he felt all too deficient in Shakespeare). By doing so he unleashed two large questions that still dominate critical discussion of the play: if Timon is finished; and whether or not it was co-written (most likely in collaboration with the young brilliant satirist, Thomas Middleton – I’ll have more on this in my next post).
In any case, as Timon has been more widely read (even if not widely performed), it has been appreciated as a work of art in its own right – one with a particular relevance to our time.
From Marjorie Garber:
The Life of Timon of Athens is Shakespeare’s remarkable play about philanthropy and misanthropy. Among those many Shakespeare plays that have been discovered, by audiences in every generation, to be in uncanny conversation with their present-day concerns, Timon, with its luxury-loving lords living on credit, influence, loans, and gifts, is possibly the most pertinent to modern and postmodern life. Yet for a variety of reasons this play is comparatively unknown outside of Shakespearean circles. The text is difficult, at times, and made more so by a number of interpretive ‘cruxes’ about which editorial scholars have disagreed, making even the basic language of the play seem inaccessible, prior to the question of meaning. Timon himself, surnamed in history ‘the Misanthrope,’ is in the course of the unfolding actions initially bland and ultimately aversive. Despite the brief appearance of two literally gold-digging whores accompanying Alciblades into exile, there is no conventional love plot to divert attention from the prevailing climate of flattery and greed; and the ‘churlish philosopher’ Apermantus, the truth-telling wise fool of the play, is, with his imprecations and curses, at best an acquired taste. So far as we know, the play was never staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Nonetheless, Timon is a superb piece of writing, characterization, and theater, and it deserves more recognition. The play is divided into two parts, the first of which shows Timon to be extraordinarily generous, giving gifts, money, entertainments, and banquets to a variety of noble dependents, described in the First Folio’s list of ‘Actors’ Names’ as ‘Flattering Lords.’ In the second half of the play, once Timon has lost his money – he tries to call upon those to whom he has given gifts and support in the past, and is turned away with an amusingly diverse array of (im)plausible excuses – he flees Athens, takes up residence in a cave, digs in the earth and with bitter irony discovers gold, and flings the gold at visitors unwise enough to call upon him.
Critics interested in history do not have to look far to find models for wealthy patrons, sycophantic flatters, and mutual disenchantment in the Jacobean (or the Elizabethan) court. One early-twentieth-century scholar suggested an equivalence between Timon and the Earl of Essex, and between Ventidius and Sir Francis Bacon, reading the play as a political allegory of patronage and betrayal. However likely or unlikely any such specific historical identification might be (and this reading has not fared well among subsequent scholars), it seems to me, as always, that the power of the play comes from its transhistorical resonances rather than from any Jacobean references. If Timon is timeless, it is because it is always timely. The brilliance of the play is the way in which its self-serving and hypocritical flatterers resemble those of every economic and social era.”
From Harold C. Goddard:
“Timon of Athens is one of the doubtful plays in the sense that its Shakespearean authorship has often been questioned. It was apparently put in the First Folio to take the place of Troilus and Cressida when that play was moved from the position originally assigned to it among the Tragedies. This fact lends a certain plausibility to the view that someone besides Shakespeare may have had a hand in its composition, a view which, in turn, is given some support by the disparity in merit between its best and its worst passages.
Yet it is beyond comprehension how anyone could doubt that Timon himself, and hence the central conception and impact of the play, is a product of Shakespeare’s imagination. The date of the work is not known. But it seems to be related to King Lear somewhat as Troilus and Cressida is to Hamlet. [MY NOTE: As I have throughout this project, I’m going with the way in which Oxford dates the plays – some place Timon between Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, others even later.] If Troilus can be called the intellectual twin of Hamlet, Timon might be called the emotional twin of King Lear (or better perhaps its dark satellite.) The generalization of course immensely oversimplifies the truth, to say nothing of the fact that there is plenty of emotion in Troilus and plenty of thought in Timon. It might be closer to the truth to say that the two plays appear to be safety valves through which Shakespeare blew off excess thought and emotion, in the case of Troilus partly for the edification of a special audience, in that of Timon perhaps for his own relief. In the latter play he seems to let himself go and to express through the mouth of Timon exactly what he thought and how he felt about humanity at some moment of mingled anger and disillusionment – disillusionment, however, not with life but with mankind, particularly with senators and their associates among the nobility. ‘All covered dishes!’ a Second Lord exclaims at the banquet of lukewarm water Timon has prepared for his former friends The symbolism is plain, though the Second Lord is unconscious of what he has said. When a man lets himself go, as Shakespeare apparently did in the character of Timon, we learn much about him.”
And, finally, from the great William Hazlitt:
“Timon of Athens always appeared to us to be written with as intense a feeling of his subject as any one play of Shakespeare. It is one of the few in which he seems to be in earnest throughout, never to trifle or go out of his way. He does not relax in his efforts, nor lose sight of the unity of his design. It is the only play of our author in which spleen is the predominant feeling of the mind. It is as much satire as a play; and contains some of the finest pieces of invective possible to be conceived, both in the snarling, captious answers of the cynic Apemantus, and in the impassioned and more terrible imprecations of Timon. The latter remind the classical reader of the force and swelling impetuosity of the moral declamations in Juvenal, while the former have all the keenness and caustic severity of the old Stoic Philosophers. The soul of Diogenes appears to have been seated on the lips of Apemantus. The churlish profession of misanthropy in the cynic is contrasted with the profound feeling of it in Timon, and also with the soldier-like and determined resentment of Alcibiades against his countrymen, who have banished him, though this forms only an incidental episode in the tragedy.”
I have a confession to make here: I think this is the first time I’ll be reading Timon of Athens, so this should be an interesting experience for all of us.
Our next reading: Timon of Athens, Act One
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning